Nearly three decades after the Police first sang of watching “every move you make,” modern technology now gives mobile phone and Internet providers the power to “police” our every move. With the proliferation of social networking applications like Four Square, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that mobile devices track users’ movements. However, consumers might not realize that our mobile devices are constantly transmitting bits of location data, even when we don’t check-in at our favorite restaurant.
This fact has us concerned, especially when coupled with recent reports that mobile operating systems for smartphones and tablets are then storing this geolocation data, and that companies are using, sharing or selling it in a variety of ways. It’s not that we have anything to hide, per se. We just have a natural aversion to private companies handling data about our whereabouts, especially when government agencies can potentially obtain this data without a warrant.
For this reason, we looked forward to Tuesday’s hearing chaired by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., on mobile privacy, with testimony from privacy experts and executives from Apple and Google, who clarified their privacy practices.
Companies should be upfront with consumers about the privacy implications of their terms of service. That starts by offering privacy agreements that are prominently displayed, written in plain English and explicitly state what information is being shared or retained.
Among those testifying was Ashkan Soltani, an independent researcher who has worked with the Wall Street Journal on mobile privacy investigations. As Gigaom.com reported: “Soltani cut through the political posturing and corporate deflections to articulate clearly what’s needed for mobile privacy regulation: more transparency and better definition of the concepts involved.”
Apple has responded to rising concerns among users by deleting all users’ location data after a week and permanently erasing any geolocation data for users that opt-out of location services.
In addition to more consumer-friendly privacy policies, this hearing should promote a proposal from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to update the nation’s privacy laws to explicitly protect our mobile location data from warrantless government searches. Although some courts have extended the Fourth Amendment to mobile devices, it remains unclear whether government agencies can gain access to this information without a warrant.
Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department has filed legal briefs arguing in support of warrantless tracking of mobile devices. We believe that this technology can still be instrumental in helping law enforcement prosecute drug cartels and human traffickers, but only after due diligence to build a criminal case that justifies surveillance. Until Congress acts, consumers should join the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s campaign to encourage technology companies to disclose on their own how they handle law enforcement’s data requests.
There’s certainly room to appreciate the many benefits of geolocation technology, which helps emergency responders locate victims of natural disasters and can reduce daily commutes with real-time traffic updates.
But, it’s time for the laws that protect our liberties to catch up with the innovations that expand our opportunities.